Why I Love Being a Reform Jew: Part 4







One of the things that I really love about Reform Judaism is its ongoing willingness to reassess the tenets of our faith in its quest to keep our Judaism contemporary and meaningful, and then that it has the courage to act upon such reassessments even if it means displacing major chunks of Jewish traditional thinking and practice.

Nowhere is this openness and courage more clearly demonstrated than in the Reform Jewish approach to worship. There are those who claim that Reform Judaism has played fast and loose with the Jewish prayer book and ritual practices, but such claims are based far more on an ignorance of Reform ideology and a blind attachment to traditional forms than on any serious attempt to understand why our movement has done what it has done.  The truth of the matter is that every change in worship which Reform Judaism has instituted has been the product of long and serious consideration, with open, frank, and sometimes heated discussion, by the spiritual leaders of our movement.  Reform rabbis, then and now, have never frivolously instituted worship change but neither have they been afraid to do so if they believed that such change would enhance Jewish worship.

There are many changes which we introduced into our worship, of which traditional Judaism has been highly critical.  Let us look as some of them, with an eye to understanding why Reform Judaism embraced such changes, even if it meant breaking with the practices of our co-religionists.

The use of the vernacular in the worship service:  Many consider the decision by the early leaders of our movement to include the use of the vernacular (local spoken language) in our worship as a frontal assault upon Jewish prayer.  They claim that for Jewish prayer to be authentic, it must be offered either exclusively or primarily in Hebrew.  The early Reformers saw this matter quite differently.  From their perspective, in order for prayer to be truly authentic, then those offering prayer must understand what it is that they are saying to God.  For the early Reformers, especially here in the United States, while they appreciated the historical and cultural importance of Hebrew, they felt strongly that to offer prayer in a language that we do not understand was little more than gibberish.  Therefore while they maintained a certain amount of Hebrew in the service, the overwhelming majority of the prayers, especially in early American Reform worship, were offered in such a way that the worshipers could appreciate not just the act of praying but the theological messages of the prayers as well.  Contrary to the opinion of traditional Jews, this decision was very much in keeping with the practices of the rabbis of the Mishnah and the Talmud.  For the traditional prayer book does not contain – as some would contend – exclusively Hebrew prayers.  In it there are also Aramaic prayers, such as the various forms of the Kaddish.  Indeed, a goodly portion of the Passover Haggadah is in Aramaic rather than Hebrew.  Aramaic, to the early rabbis was like English to us.  It was the language they spoke on the street.  Indeed, it was the language in which they wrote the Babylonian Talmud.  Whenever one comes across an Aramaic prayer, the very fact that it is in Aramaic clearly announces that the ancient rabbis felt it important that the people understood its meaning.

Over the years, the role of Hebrew in Reform Jewish worship has been a matter of great debate and has changed dramatically from its place in the early American Reform prayer books.  How much Hebrew is too little or too much is an ongoing discussion in many Reform synagogues.  Those who have advocated for greater amounts of Hebrew have done so because of the spiritual attachment it can provide us to the generations, past and present, of Jewish brothers and sisters, across the planet, who likewise prayed and pray in this language.  After all, Hebrew is the language of the Torah.  Far more than Yiddish or Ladino, it is the Jewish language.  So there continues to be a struggle to find a balance between our emotional/spiritual attachment to Hebrew with our intellectual need to pray with knowledge as well as feeling.  Our most recent prayer book, MISHKAN T’FILAH, attempts to address this issue by presenting all its prayers in Hebrew and in a more or less accurate English translation.  It then goes on to speak to those who enjoy variety in worship by offering English thematic prayer alternatives.  Recognizing that many of our people simply do not have Hebrew reading skills, it also offers the Hebrew prayers in transliteration in hopes of raising those people’s comfort level with the Hebrew.  While some larger congregations with larger staffs and larger facilities have turned to such solutions as multiple concurrent services to meet the various worship tastes, smaller congregations such as the one I serve will need to continue to seek that elusive happy medium.

Revisiting the belief in a personal messiah: One of the major elements of traditional Jewish theology which Reform Judaism decided to discard was the belief in the coming of a personal messiah.  They discarded this belief, not because they wished to abandon the Jewish desire for the ultimate perfection of the world, but rather because of the bitter lessons of our history.  All too often in the past, individuals arose who claimed the mantle of the messiah, or for whom others claimed it in their name.  In each case, no good ever came of such messianic aspirations.  Too often, as a result, the suffering of the Jews increased rather than was relieved.

Rather than cling to this troublesome belief in the coming of a personal messiah, the early Reformers replaced it with a belief in the coming of a messianic age.  According to Reform teaching, no one individual will come to bring about the ultimate perfection of the world but rather a time will come when each and every one of us will participate in the realization of that dream.  For each and every individual carries a piece of the messiah within them.  We pray for the day when we will all recognize our messianic potential and our messianic responsibilities.  When that day arrives, it will be the onset of the messianic age; a time when we will all work together as one family of the children of God to fulfill God’s will and bring universal justice and healing to our planet.

This shift from a belief in a personal messiah to a belief in a messianic age had a profound effect upon the very nature of Reform Jewish prayer.  The traditional worship service dedicates a significant portion of its prayers to theological matters related to the coming of the personal messiah; all of which were rejected by Reform Judaism along with its rejection of the idea of personal messiah itself.  These related theological issues include the in-gathering of all Jewish exiles to the land of Israel, the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple, the re-institution of the sacrificial cult, overseen by the priests and the Levites, and the physical resurrection of the Jewish dead, who will then themselves rejoin the Jewish people in Israel.  For Reform Judaism, the messianic age is viewed as a time of profound universal healing, and not as a time for a return to Jewish life as it was two millennia ago.  While traditional Jews view (or at least pray for) the return to the Jerusalem Temple and the sacrificial rite as part of the Jewish future, Reform Jews consign the Temple and the sacrifices to the Jewish past.  For Reform Jews the synagogue has replaced the Temple as the center of Jewish worship – and that is why so many Reform synagogues include the word Temple in their names – and prayer has replaced animal and agricultural sacrifices.  Simply put, we do not want to go back there and we therefore consider it hypocritical to pray to go back there.  As far as the physical resurrection of the dead is concerned, we believe that when the body dies, our physical existence is over.  It is our soul which lives on, and will continue to live on eternally with God.  The body will not live again, neither by the efforts of a personal messiah nor as a result of the spirit of a messianic age.

The re-introduction of instrumental music into our worship:  For the first 2,000 years of Jewish history instrumental music played an integral role in Jewish worship.  The Torah and the rest of Hebrew scriptures are replete with such musical images – Miriam dancing with her timbrel at the Red Sea; David singing the Psalms while accompanying himself on his harp; the variety of musical instruments that accompanied worship in the Temple in Jerusalem.  However, after the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 c.e. the rabbis decreed that Jews would no longer include instrumental music in their worship as a sign of mourning for the Temple’s loss.  However, when the Temple will be rebuilt, such music will return to our worship.  Since Reform Judaism rejects the traditional aspirations to rebuild the Temple and revert to the sacrificial cult, it also has set aside the prohibition of instrumental music during worship.  In re-introducing instrumental music to our services, it was only logical that the early Reformers turned to the worship of their Christian neighbors as a model to emulate.  This is how the organ found its way into Reform synagogues.  Today, the organ has either been joined or replaced by several other instruments such as the guitar, piano, and drums.  In the late ’60’s and early ’70’s our movement started to experience what might be considered a worship music revolution.  This revolution came out of our camps.  It was in many ways a product of the growing popularity in American society of folk and folk rock music.  The song leaders of our camps were playing their guitars and creating a vibrant new musical expression of Jewish spirituality which moved us to a whole other level beyond the traditional tunes of the synagogue and the “churchy” anthems which had taken hold of Reform Jewish worship.  This revolution is still going on with new lively modern Jewish liturgical music constantly being produced.  It is no wonder that when Jewish communities invite the creators of these new sounds to perform in concert and in worship, almost invariably these performers are Reform Jews and alumni of our camps.

While there are those who claim that the traditional form of the worship service is sacrosanct and inviolate, Reform Judaism has had the courage to say that we will not pray for that in which we do not believe, and when we pray, our prayers will be joyful.  In order for the soul to be fully engaged in the act of prayer, our prayers must come from and be true to both our heart and our mind.

In part 5, I will consider how Reform Judaism has struggled with determining issues of personal status and how it has demonstrated both the compassion to be inclusive and the courage to break with both Conservative and Orthodox Judaism on these issues purely on the grounds of principle.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Classical Reform Judaism, God, Haggadah, In-gathering of the Exiles, Jerusalem, Jewish, Jewish Theology, Messianic Age, Passover, Personal Messiah, Pesach, Praying in Aramaic, Praying in Hebrew, Praying in the Vernacular, Rabbis, Re-institution of Instrumental Music in Worship, Re-institution of the Temple Cult, Rebuilding the Temple, Reform Judaism, Resurrection of the Dead, Role of Jewish Tradition in Reform Judaism, Shabbat, Spirituality, Synagogue Life, Uncategorized, Union Prayer Book

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4 Comments on “Why I Love Being a Reform Jew: Part 4”

  1. Smithson Says:

    No disrespect Rabbi, but it is specious to suggest that those who claim that the traditional form of the worship service is sacrosanct and inviolate are praying for that in which they do not believe.

    One doesn’t follow the other.

  2. ravkarp Says:

    John, first of all – no disrespect taken. I am thrilled that you find this blog thought provoking and that it inspires questions for you to ask. As far as your comment is concerned, you are right in regards to those who hold the traditional form of the worship service as sacrosanct and inviolate, and also TRULY BELIEVE in such principles as the coming of a personal messiah, the in-gathering of the exiles, the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, the re-institution of the sacrificial cult, and the physical resurrection of the dead. However for Reform Jews or other liberal or quasi-liberal Jews who do not believe in these theological principles to offer such prayers would constitute their praying for that in which they do not believe. In fact, I ask you – John, do you believe that the Temple in Jerusalem should be rebuilt, and that in it the offering of animal and agricultural sacrifices by the descendants of the Kohanim and the Levi’im should be re-instituted? If yes, then when you pray the traditional prayers, your prayers are consistent with your beliefs. If you do not believe in these things, then if when you pray the traditional prayers, your prayers are not consistent with your beliefs.

  3. Monex Says:

    The branch of Judaism introduced in the 19th century that seeks to reconcile historical Judaism with modern life and does not require strict observance of traditional religious law and ritual.


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